WARSAW, POLAND – With apologies to the other rivalries in Major League Soccer that have been around longer, there is none more intense than the Portland Timbers-Seattle Sounders rivalry.
Forged over decades, and bolstered by the natural dislike that permeates between people from Seattle and Portland, this Cascadia derby has helped give MLS a refreshing boost of energy that has quickly become the envy of rivalries across the league.
However, when the teams meet on Sunday, it won't be about just the rivalry. The match will pit two struggling teams in serious need of points. Two teams who have seen their seasons stumble meet in a match that was already going to be intense. Now, sporting hatred will be mixed in with a healthy dash of desperation, which should make for an epic encounter.
The Timbers will be at home, and need to revive an offense that has sputtered all season long. The arrival of Kris Boyd in the off-season suggested Portland would become an attacking juggernaut, but the Timbers have been anything but. They have managed just 12 goals scored in 13 matches, the third-worst in the league.
Surprisingly enough, what was supposed to be the team's most glaring weakness has been a strength. The Timbers defense has been steadier than it was last year, though you still wouldn't call it one of the league's best. The addition of Hanyer Mosquera has helped stabilize the back-line.
Unfortunately for Portland, the attack hasn't exactly given the defense much to work with and the result is a 3-6-4 record that has them tied for last place in the Western Conference.
The Sounders aren't in nearly as bad a shape as Portland, but their recent league form is still a cause for concern. Seattle has gone six straight league matches without a victory which makes the team's impressive 7-1 record to start the season feel like a distant memory.
What has gone wrong? You can start with an offense that has managed to score multiple goals just once during the six-match winless slide. The addition of Eddie Johnson and eventual return to health of Mauro Rosales were supposed to take the Sounders attack to a new level, but the highest-scoring team in MLS a year ago has managed just 18 goals in 15 matches.
The Sounders won't have an easy time cracking the suddenly stingy Portland defense, but Freddy Montero has had his share of success against the arch-rivals. He will need to step up his play if Seattle is going to avoid a defeat that would not only give the Timbers bragging rights, but also push the Sounders even further from the leaders in the Western Conference.
Don't expect either team to sit back and settle for a tie. Both teams need points badly, and know that their fans won't stand for a draw. That should lead to a wide open and exciting encounter, and while the recent form of the two attacks doesn't bode well for a beautiful game, the combination of animosity and desperation should make the latest installment of the Timbers-Sounders rivalry one of the best yet.
With the arch-rivals both entering this match in need of a win, the Cascadia derby is a must-watch match.
Here is a look at the other MLS matches to watch this weekend:
1- NEW YORK RED BULLS vs. DC UNITED
First place in the East is on the line on Sunday at Red Bull Arena, as NY looks to catch a red-hot DC side that has rattled off four straight victories.
New York is expected to welcome back Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, who should provide a boost for an offense that has struggled in recent matches. Kenny Cooper held his own during Henry's lengthy injury layoff, but will need the Frenchman back in the lineup to get him going again.
The Red Bulls won't have an easy time breaking through a DC defense that has found health and good form in recent weeks. The centerback tandem of Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic looked sharp vs. Philadelphia last week, but will face a significantly tougher test from New York. The key for DC United will be getting Dwayne DeRosario going. The offense sputtered against the Union last week, but you can expect DeRosario to get up to face the team that traded him away last year.
2- REAL SALT LAKE vs. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
The top two teams in the West square off as RSL looks to atone for Wednesday's shocking 3-2 loss to the LA Galaxy (a match RSL led 2-0 early in the first half). San Jose comes in riding high off another late comeback victory, this time a 2-1 win against Colorado that saw the Earthquakes score both goals after the 83rd minute.
The last time these teams met it was San Jose capitalizing on two RSL red cards to win courtesy of (you guessed it) two late goals. This time around, the match-up favors RSL, which has the weapons to neutralize what the Earthquakes do best. Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers are more than capable of dealing with the crafty Chris Wondolowski and physical Steven Lenhart.
The key for RSL will be Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales controlling the middle. San Jose has enjoyed some solid seasons for Sam Cronin and Rafael Baca, but Real Salt Lake should have the edge in the middle that helps them win this clash of West powers.
3- LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS
Don't look now but the LA Galaxy have climbed back into the playoff race in the West. Their dramatic comeback victory against RSL has pushed the Galaxy to within two points of fifth-place Colorado, and Saturday's match against Vancouver will serve as the latest test to show us if the defending champions really are getting closer to the form expected of them when the season began.
The Whitecaps have been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2012 MLS season, boasting one of the league's best defenses and one of its deepest attacks. The New York Red Bulls managed to contain the Whitecaps offense on Wednesday, but rookie Darren Mattocks will be back from suspension and his speed gives Vancouver's offense a boost and will cause the Galaxy defense some problems.
For LA, Landon Donovan's showing against RSL bodes well for a Galaxy turnaround. If Donovan is ready to start playing like an MVP, there isn't anybody the Galaxy can't beat. A win against Vancouver would definitely serve notice that LA is back.
4- CHICAGO FIRE vs. COLUMBUS CREW
Robert Warzycha doesn't get much credit, but no coach in MLS has done more with less over the past two seasons than the Columbus Crew skipper. He has the Crew riding a five-match unbeaten streak and knocking on the door for one of the five playoff spots in the East.
The Chicago Fire currently hold one of those spots, and last weekend's resounding 3-1 thrashing of the New York Red Bulls has the Fire feeling good heading into the summer. Chris Rolfe looks ready to be a key part of the Chicago attack, and combining him with the speedy Patrick Nyarko and Dom Oduro should make the Fire tough to stop.
The Crew have the defensive chops to slow down the Fire, but the question is whether Columbus can produce enough offensively to take three points at Toyota Park. The young centerback tandem of Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry has looked promising, and Saturday will provide another test to show us if they are capable of keeping Chicago in their playoff spot.